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Professor, Poet Sandra Lim’s Keys to Writing

Pushcart Prize Winner Dishes

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Asst. Prof. Sandra Lim introduces students to writing poetry and wins awards with her own.

By Julia Gavin

Sandra Lim is an award-winning poet and assistant professor who teaches poetry and writing courses in the English department. As she writes and publishes poetry, Lim provides an inside look into the life of a working writer. She shared some of her thoughts on reading and teaching the keys to a good day of writing.

Q. When did you begin writing?

A. My mother told me that I wrote little poems as a child, but I don’t remember this! I began writing poetry in college, when I took a beginning poetry workshop. I had always loved to read, and I thought I would write fiction, but I fell in love with poems after taking that beginning poetry course.

Q. How do you write poetry?

A. Often, poems start when a line comes to me. It’s like listening to music, when you can’t quite get a tune or lyric out of your head. 

Q. Do you have a writing routine?

A. I don’t write every day, unfortunately. I write in bursts and do my best to write in the mornings. I have to have the right pen and paper and if I don’t have them, I find it terribly hard to write. I like to have my books nearby, sometimes just to glance at the spines, as they often trigger memories and ideas. And coffee. Always coffee.

When the writing is going really well, what’s great is that I don’t feel like I should be doing anything else. It’s an amazing feeling. When I’m writing intensely, it can be hard to go back to the rest of my life.  

Q. Why do you enjoy teaching your classes?

A. Introduction to Creative Writing is a gateway course I often teach, and it is really fun to see new students get excited about writing. New students also don’t have any sticky preconceptions or bad habits about writing yet! Contemporary American Poetry is another (non-workshop) course I enjoy teaching; it can be a challenge for some students who haven’t been exposed to much poetry, but I really relish teaching this literature course.

Q. How do you think students benefit by learning from a professor who is a publishing poet?

A. I think that with any subject, it’s a delight if the professor is an interesting figure actively working in his or her field, especially for students who are serious about the subject. We can talk of practical matters about making a life in writing, as well as matters of craft, etc.

Q. How did you feel when you heard your poem “A Tab of Iron on the Tongue” was selected for a 2015 Pushcart Prize?

A. I was very surprised and pleased. I wrote the poem during a writing fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center. There was a woman there who was starting a new journal, “The Account,” at the time, and she asked me to submit a poem that I had written and read while at the center. So, I’m really glad that the award also helped get attention for the new journal.

Q. Everyone always wants to know what a writer is reading. Do you have any current favorites?

A. I’m usually reading poems for classes and then there are the poets I often return to, like Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, Frank O’Hara. Recently I’ve been reading some plays and a lot of nonfiction as well. I read a lot of prose in my downtime. Some writers I’ve recently been reading again are Leonard Michaels and Grace Paley. 

Lim’s first collection of poems, “Loveliest Grotesque,” won the 2006 Kore Press First Book Award for Poetry. Her second collection, "The Wilderness," was selected by Louise Glück for the 2013 Barnard Women Poets Prize and the 2015 Levis Reading Prize. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center and the Getty Research Institute. Lim’s poems have appeared in “Boston Review,” “Court Green,” “Guernica,” “Colorado Review,” “American Letters & Commentary” and other journals. Lim was born in Seoul, Korea and educated at Stanford University, UC Berkeley and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.